Single Dads

With one eye on his two young children and the other on everything else, Bill Nathan came to a startling realization.

He was the only dad at the swimming pool.

"There were a bazillion moms and me," recalled Nathan, 48, a San Ramon resident and the single father of Joseph, 5, and Abigail ("Abbo"), 2. "I got to be friends with a lot of the moms. We used to joke that I was 'just one of the moms.'

"And it felt good."

Contemplating their own dads as Father's Day approaches on Sunday, few American fathers recall growing up in single-father households themselves. Certainly, the percentage of U.S. households led by a single father is still small. Yet despite Nathan's tongue-in-cheek observation, it's hardly "one in a bazillion." In fact, according to the 2000 census, one out of every 45 households is led by a single dad — 2.2 million nationally. That's a 62 percent increase since 1990.

The numbers of single fathers are rising in the local Jewish community as well, not only because of divorce but because of the increasing incidence of breast cancer and other diseases, coupled with older parenthood.

Bob Fishman, whose wife, Mindy, died of a brain tumor five years ago, understands what his two sons, 10-year-old Danny and 13-year-old Steve, are going through.

"My mother died when I was very young, so my father was — is — a great inspiration to me. He was a man of the World War II generation, so he was not very demonstrative as far as love was concerned. I'm certainly a lot more demonstrative about that, but his level of commitment was passed onto me," said Fishman, 48, a Terra Linda resident and member of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

"Obviously there are hard things about being a single parent. You have to be in two or three places at once and never have enough time in the day, but you don't dwell on it. All I dwell on is how blessed I am because I would never know these kids the way I know them if this never happened."

Single fathers not only navigate the logistical and emotional minefields encountered by any single parent but they also must deal with society's skeptical eye. Armin Brott, a Jewish author of five books on parenting including "The Single Father," says contemporary American culture harbors prejudices against single dads.

"The image of a single father is that something is wrong with him; he's irresponsible," said the Berkeley-based writer. "You still get looks. A custodial, single father will be out in the middle of the day with his kids, and people say, 'Hey, are you babysitting?' There's this presumption that fathers are not involved. You're helping; it's temporary."

Archie Lewinstein, 55, still gets "looks." A jeweler most of his life, the Cotati father is in semi-retirement after five eye surgeries, freeing up plenty of time to volunteer at daughter Sophia's schools. He has had custody of his 8-year-old child since she was 3.

"Some moms were concerned about a man being in the classroom as opposed to mothers being there," said Lewinstein, a member at Cotati's Congregation Ner Shalom, where Sophia attends Hebrew school.

"If my desire to give my daughter support wasn't as strong as it is, I might have shied away awfully quickly, the way some of the moms reacted. But after they got to know me, it was a different story."

Like most single fathers, Lewinstein dispels the Oscar Madison stereotype. His daughter isn't getting a can of tuna and a six-pack of soda in her lunch box, and her clothes drawers aren't sorted by degree of filth. However, the Polish-born dad will concede that he's no Vidal Sassoon.

"The hardest thing is combing her hair in the morning," said Lewinstein with a chuckle. "My daughter always comments about that, how I don't know how to do it."

Fishman, who has two sons, doesn't seem fazed by the household routine. "I'm a dad, I was born to do this," he said. "Changing diapers, making lunch, dinner, a hot breakfast every morning: This is what I do. It comes very easily."

The single fathers who were interviewed, all mildly to actively involved in the Jewish community, said the structure and support of Judaism and local Jewish institutions have helped them through difficult times.

"The JCC is an excellent environment for my kids to have a sense of belonging," said Nathan, who received full custody of his children when he separated two years ago from his wife, Jenny, who died last year. "Being around other Jewish kids [helps overcome] their sense of difference."

Fishman and San Francisco's Steve Beckerman — whose wife also died of cancer — said the daily friendship and support they received from the Brandeis Hillel Day School community helped them through their darkest days both before and after their wives' deaths.

"People think the world is cynical but I've been fortunate to receive love from all these people. It's changed my life," said Fishman, who lived in Israel for five years in the 1970s and referred to Brandeis as "an American kibbutz."

"The support I got from the Jewish community at Brandeis woke me up to what the world is really about."

Fishman and his sons attended a children's bereavement group for two years. He observed that many of the men he befriended who did not have a support system like the one in the Jewish community have not been able to cope with their losses.

"I can tell you horror stories: drug and alcohol abuse, kids taken away by the state because of neglect. I don't know too many people who have the support I have," said Fishman, who runs a cafe in San Anselmo. "My not having the support of the Jewish community could have been a potential disaster."

Yet in addition to outside support, being a successful single father requires intense dedication.

After a lengthy court struggle, Lewinstein was awarded sole custody of Sophia when she was 3 years old. Almost immediately, he became a different person.

"I was surprised how responsible I became instantly, the minute my child was there, as opposed to a lot of irresponsible things I did in my life prior to that," he recalled.

"Having sole custody with no one else around, you realize someone else is totally dependent on your actions. It helped me understand the meaning of the word 'rich.' if you have a good family, that's rich. All the money in the world can't give me the joy and satisfaction this child gives me. She's the pride and joy of my life."

While they admit being a single father can be difficult, those interviewed say they revel in the intimate relationships they have developed with their children.

"You know the old saying that no one on his death bed ever wished he spent more time in the office? I'm forced to live that," said Nathan, a manager of Chevron's international gas and power department who rides his bike to work at 4:30 a.m. so he can get off early and play with his kids.

"I can be there to help them with their homework; I can go to the pool with them in the evenings. I wouldn't have done this stuff otherwise. I could have, but there just wasn't a compelling reason to break out of the mold and do these kinds of things."

There is one thing the single fathers can't do, however — be Mom.

"It's hard not having my wife here to speak with when I need someone to turn to for guidance," said Beckerman, 54, whose sons, Daniel and Sam, are 8 and almost 15. Lori Beckerman died of breast cancer a year and a half ago. "There's no one there for me to turn around and say, 'What do I do now?'"

Adds Lewinstein, "Every once in a while my daughter says, 'Gee Dad, I could sure use a new mom,' and that puts a little bit of guilt on me."

Fishman points out, however, that dating is especially difficult for a single parent.

"If she's been married and has kids, I think, 'Do I want to buy into her?' and If she's never been married and doesn't have kids, I think, 'Does she want to buy into me?'" he said. "I can do everything except be a woman. I can't provide a woman to love them. That's the toughest thing there is. I grew up without a mother so I know how hard it is."

Yet despite all the myriad difficulties, single dads can — and do — turn out remarkable children, and David Efron should know.

Efron raised his then-teen son, Michael, on his own for four years between marriages. Now 28, Michael celebrated his bar mitzvah at Lafayette's Temple Isaiah, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and is currently an Internet project manager for Kaiser Permanente.

"The hardest thing was knowing when to keep my mouth shut," said the 63-year-old Alameda resident with a laugh. "There is the possibility of over-parenting and over-controlling, and that can be stifling for the child as well as for the relationship. But I enjoyed and still enjoy being a 'Jewish mother.'"

And Efron has words of advice for single, male "Jewish mothers" still raising young children.

"Spend as much time with them as possible. Listen and then listen again. Be involved, respect your child," he said. "I have more regrets than your article has room for. But on the whole, I can look back with not only pleasure but a lot of satisfaction. It was a good time."

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.